Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson caught a touchdown from Baltimore quarterback Johnny Unitas in the Colts’ win against the Giants in the 1959 NFL championship game.
That was six years before the first Super Bowl, which would quickly become as entrenched in the American fabric as fast-food restaurants, the industry in which Richardson built his fortune.
After building the Hardee’s brand into one of the country’s largest food-service companies, Richardson brought an NFL franchise to the Carolinas, becoming only the second former player to own a team.
Now, after a near-perfect regular season followed by a pair of playoff victories, the Panthers will face the Denver Broncos on Feb. 7 in Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, Calif.
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Richardson’s friends, family members and fellow owners say it’s appropriate Richardson’s team is playing in the Super Bowl’s golden edition.
“For my dad it would complete the circle,” Mark Richardson said Friday. “Having been a player and won the world championship and the bonus money from the world championship creating the seed capital for him to start his fast-food restaurant business. To have that grow to the point he was in the position to bring an expansion franchise to his home state and the place where he grew up. And then to go to the Super Bowl and win it, and do it in the 50th year, I think it would complete the circle.”
While Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning figures to be the sentimental favorite playing in what might be his final game, New York Giants owner John Mara says a lot of people in NFL circles will be pulling for the Panthers, specifically Richardson.
Mara mentioned Richardson’s contributions to the league, as well as the heart transplant Richardson received the night of the Super Bowl in 2009.
“To see him be able to participate in this game is very special for all of us,” Mara said. “And I know there are a lot of people out there that are hoping to see him on the platform accepting the Lombardi Trophy in Santa Clara.”
A busy year
It’s been an eventful year for Richardson, 79, a member of the league’s committee to relocate a team to Los Angeles. Richardson backed the Chargers’ move from San Diego to Carson, a bid that failed when owners voted this month to allow the Rams to move from St. Louis to Inglewood.
“I think it took a little steam out of him for a while. That’s another reason I’m thankful that the team was doing so well because he had that to fall back on,” Mara said. “He spent an enormous amount of time on that committee.”
He got in it to build a winning franchise and build a team that people can be proud of and have pride in calling the Panthers their team. I think he’s accomplished all of those things. The final piece of the puzzle is to get the Lombardi Trophy.
Mark Richardson, on his father and Panthers owner/founder Jerry Richardson
But every Sunday Richardson would take his seat in the front row of the owners box at Bank of America Stadium or wherever the Panthers were playing. Despite a record-setting offensive performance and the team’s 14-0 start, Richardson always had a dour appearance when the TV cameras would show him.
Steve Luquire, a longtime friend of Richardson, said he’s often asked: “Why doesn’t Jerry smile more?”
Luquire’s response: “That’s a work day for him. ... I think he feels just being consistent is the best approach.”
But Panthers players coaxed a big smile from Richardson after beating New Orleans in December to clinch their third straight NFC South title. Quarterback Cam Newton invited Richardson into the middle of the visitors locker room at the Superdome and encouraged him to dab, the Atlanta-born dance that Newton popularized this season.
After Richardson obliged by dabbing, players went wild and called Richardson by his “Big Cat” nickname.
Luquire sent Richardson an email that day that read, “I thought the earth stopped spinning when I saw you do the dab.”
Richardson, the first former player to own a team since the Bears’ George Halas, replied: “Winning championships makes adults do crazy things.”
‘He cares about them’
Panthers receivers coach Ricky Proehl played on six teams during a 17-year NFL career, and was a member of the Panthers’ 2003 team that made the only other Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.
Proehl said Richardson gets to know his players on a personal level.
“I know I played for several organizations where I never talked to the owner. There’s owners out there that don’t even know his players if he ran into them in the elevator, in the hallway,” Proehl said.
“Mr. Richardson knows these guys. He loves them. He cares about them. And it shows because of the way these guys talk about Mr. Richardson, what they think about him and how bad they want to win for him.”
Josh Norman is one of those players. The Panthers cornerback meets with Richardson nearly every week during the season, with the discussions focused more on life than football.
“I always go up and check on him, see how he’s doing,” Norman said. “He likes to coach me up on things he feels I should do.”
‘He got in it to win’
Fans were critical of Richardson and former general manager Marty Hurney for gutting the roster before the 2010 season and with the labor lockout looming. The Panthers finished 2-14 and scored 16 offensive touchdowns in coach John Fox’s final season.
But the abysmal finish gave the Panthers the first pick in the 2011 draft to use on Newton, who has become the face of the franchise after the team cut ties with veterans like Steve Smith and DeAngelo Williams.
Newton’s arrival coincided with the hiring of Ron Rivera, but the Panthers endured two more losing seasons in 2011-12. Richardson fired Hurney after another slow start in 2012.
“He got in it to win, not just to own a team. He got in it to build a winning franchise and build a team that people can be proud of and have pride in calling the Panthers their team,” Mark Richardson said. “I think he’s accomplished all of those things. The final piece of the puzzle is to get the Lombardi Trophy.”
Jerry Richardson, who declined to be interviewed for this story, fired both his sons in 2009 because he believed their differing management styles were negatively impacting the organization.
An emotional moment
Mark Richardson, who was the team president, declined to comment on his firing. But he became emotional during a 10-minute phone interview when asked about his brother Jon, who died in 2013 after a long battle with cancer.
Jon Richardson’s three children will be at Levi’s Stadium for the Super Bowl, but Mark Richardson said he wishes his brother could be there, too.
“I know he’ll be watching from above,” he said.
Mark Richardson and his wife will be watching from the owners suite with Richardson and his wife, Rosalind.
After the game Mark Richardson hopes his dad is celebrating on the field at Levi’s Stadium.
“I watch the Super Bowl every year and at the end of the game they shoot the confetti and the winning owner raises the Lombardi Trophy. That’s a wish I’ve always had for my father,” he said. “I hope that this is the year that he finally gets to hold the trophy and raise the trophy because he deserves it more than anyone.”